Outside the Backdoor

Observing what can happen in your own garden even in suburbia!


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Cool compost

So this month’s topic is compost! I promise that I’m not about to come over all ‘Monty Don’ on you and suggest that you create three giant bins in your garden for this purpose. Whilst making your own compost is to be recommended, few of us with town gardens can do this with any real conviction. Whilst our garden may be larger than the average urban backyard, I don’t want to lose valuable planting and green space to compost making, so I’m afraid that my attempts are limited to a council supplied bin which, in fairness, takes a lot of our green kitchen waste and, about twice a year, enables us to give a new plant a decent start in life.

Compost bin with cat on top

Compost bin camouflaged by cat (c) Elizabeth Malone

No, my focus this month is on the compost that you are most likely to be buying in the garden centre, supermarket or DIY store, usually labelled ‘multi-purpose’ which covers a multitude of sins. It was the Easter weekend, when the national news was dominated by the Extinction Rebellion protests, that I found myself getting on my soap box and starting to preach about making sure that you are gardening ‘peat free’. On Easter Saturday I walked into a garden centre which was proclaiming its extra special holiday deal on multi-purpose compost which is was proud to shout was ‘100% peat’. I stared in horror as the woman next to me started loading her trolley. “You do realise”, I found myself saying, “that it’s 100% peat, don’t you?” The look she gave me either said “what planet are you from?” Or “OK, local nutter, move away now.” It made me realise that, as a keen amateur gardener, I’ve been reading the horticultural press for the last couple of decades and watching the experts on TV, probably Geoff Hamilton being the first, advising me to avoid using peat-based composts at all costs. But what if you’re not a keen amateur? What if you just garden occasionally in the spring and summer when you fancy a bright hanging basket or a pot outside the backdoor? That afternoon I tested my theory out on my osteopath (who once famously cut all the flower heads off a peony thinking it was a rose that he’d forgotten to prune!), and quite right he asked, “Why shouldn’t I use peat?”

Plant pots in greenhouse

Potting up for the summer – make sure it’s peat free (c) Elizabeth Malone

Peat bogs are to the UK what the rainforest is to South America, they are our carbon cupboard and, as such, can do an enormous amount to protect us from climate change. They also help prevent against flooding and they are a vital habitat for our wildlife. Scarily we have lost more than 90% of the UK’s natural peat bogs. If you want to read more about this, Friends of the Earth have an excellent article.

I began tinkering with gardening about 26 years ago. In the beginning I almost certainly bought standard peat-based compost but I quickly abandoned it. Thinking back, this was almost certainly because of Geoff Hamilton on Gardeners’ World who was an environmental campaigner way ahead of his time. When Alan Titchmarsh took over the helm of GW, he was quickly under pressure to move towards peat-free gardening. The fact that I remember this makes me convinced that we had already converted.  Whilst I am no expert gardener, I feel that I have gardened very successfully in my own way, without peat for more than 20 years.  I once had a conversation with a chap at a garden centre who saw me buying peat-free and told me that it wouldn’t be much good for seed-germination, but I was happy to tell him that I’d never found this a problem.  Something like this might be a stumbling block for commercial growers who need a very good success rate but for us amateurs, I think we can afford a few seeds to go amiss.

Newly germinated seedlings

Cosmos germinating (c) Elizabeth Malone

Part of my annoyance on that Easter Saturday stemmed from the fact that Westland, a giant horticultural company, have bought the ‘New Horizon’ brand whose ‘peat-free and organic’ compost I have been using for donkey’s years. In another local garden centre, the familiar green bags had been replaced by bright red ones. Peat free yes, but no longer organic. I bought a couple as a stop-gap to get me through the weekend but a week later I was delighted to discover that another local garden centre had now begun to stock a peat-free, organic compost from Melcourt, endorsed by the RHS. This may well become my ‘go-to’ compost.  The great thing about this particular garden centre, and here I will give a shout-out for Adrian Hall’s, is that they stocked Melcourt peat-free and organic, Melcourt peat-free only and the New Horizon peat-free, thus giving the customer a choice of several peat-free options amidst the non-peat-free.  This is definitely progress as most garden centres, even if they’re not shouting ‘100% peat’, still leave you hunting for the one peat-free brand they stock.  I’ve just done a quick google search for peat-free composts and have been surprised to discover that all the big chains claim to stock them.  However, it strikes me that it’s just not very visible when you walk into the store and an awful lot of people will just by the first thing they see, particularly if it’s on special offer.  So I think that we, as gardeners, have a responsibility to educate our friends and to make sure our garden centres and DIY stores understand the importance of what they stock and also how they stock it.

French bean seedlings

French bean seedlings (c) Elizabeth Malone

Saving what peat we have left is something we can all easily contribute towards. Next time you go looking for a bag of multi-purpose compost, just make sure it says ‘peat-free’. If it doesn’t, find one that does and, if the garden centre doesn’t have a peat-free option, take your business elsewhere.

White geranium phaem

Cerinthe and Geranium Phaem Alba – self seeding and avoiding compost altogether! (c) Elizabeth Malone

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Spring is green!

I used this phrase for a recent Facebook post and all my G&S enthusiast friends came back with, “Summer’s rose ..” thinking of the lovely madrigal in Ruddigore. But it’s so true – spring is green!

Euonymus fortunei

Euonymus fortunei (c) Elizabeth Malone

It’s probably the time of year when we appreciate the colour green the most. Owning, as I do, a garden bordered by lilac, you do get rather fed up of the brown twiggyness of winter. Whilst I love my lilacs (see Luscious Lilacs), it has to be said that they do sadly contribute to winter dullness.

Banks of lilac in winter bordering the garden

Lilac just budding green (c) Elizabeth Malone

From March onwards, I find it hard to resist walking around the garden taking photos of the new green emerging and now, in April, everything is positively zinging! The hawthorn, which entered April with a generous smattering of new green leaves, conveniently displayed against a vivid blue sky, is now a dense canopy beginning to show the signs of flower buds getting ready to welcome in May.

Hawthorn leaves against blue sky

Hawthorn leaves on 1 April 2019 (c) Elizabeth Malone

In the ‘woodland’ garden, as I like to call it when feeling posh, the euphorbia has been excellent this year. This one is only the common woodland spurge but we brought it from our previous house and it took to this area with enthusiasm until a couple of years ago when I became quite worried as it looked sickly. It’s good to see that it appears to have bounced back.

Close up of Euphorbia flower / bract

Euphorbia / woodland spurge (c) Elizabeth Malone

I’m pleased to say that my Euphorbia Martinii, purchased at Malvern last year, has also returned. I was worried about it, to say the least, as it became rather swamped by a couple of over-enthusiastic dahlias last summer!

Euphorbia martinii bracts with red eye

Euphorbia martinii (c) John Malone

One of the really exciting greens at this time of year are the very first shoots of new seedlings in the greenhouse and on the veg plot. My rocket was first to be sown, first to germinate and also first to be eaten!

Rocket seedlings just germinating

Rocket germination! (C) Elizabeth Malone

I now have peas and French beans following in its footsteps and my tomatoes are almost ready to be pricked out and potted on – a task for the Easter weekend I think.

Last summer we also planted a number of new roses, five I think in the end, and I’m pleased to say all look to be doing well. However, it was the new leaves of our existing Iceberg climbing rose that really struck me last weekend. It was as if someone had been out and polished them up ready for the new season! These particular shoots were especially good to see as they were on new long stems stretching into the pergola, a direction that we’ve been trying to train it into for several years.

Shiny green new leaves on rose IcebergNew leaves on an Iceberg (c) Elizabeth Malone

Which just makes me think that I shall have to write a post later on this year entitled “Summer’s rose”!! But before I sign off on this post, I’m going to leave you with some lovely vibrant green which, ironically, is providing a fantastic backdrop to that most spring-like of spring flowers, the bluebell!!

Bluebells coming into flower with backlit green leaves

Budding bluebell (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Awaiting the arrival of Spring

Only last weekend I could feel the anticipation of Spring really being on its way but today, as I type, it is dark and grey.  There is a constant stream of heavy drizzle and it is cold and windy.  Only yesterday I dug my woolley hat back out of the drawer.

February is traditionally a gloomy month but just occasionally it teases with glimpses of something better to come … just around the corner. Last Sunday I saw the first daffodils in flower as I drove to church.  When I returned to do the ironing, I was distracted by the sight of a pair of magpies starting to build their nest.  Interestingly they were attacking one of the squirrel dreys that I wrote about last month, clearly viewing it as an easy target.  Time and time again they visited to wrestle already prepared twigs from between the branches and then flew off to wherever their construction site is located.  Today there is no sign of them.

Outside the backdoor it’s not entirely bleak.  There are splashes of colour and flower to 33066815126_be63a70312_mcheer both sight and smell.  Next to the patio, the winter flowering honeysuckle is now covered in sweet scented blooms and its lemony fragrance wafts into the house provided, of course, you are brave enough to open the door and let in the cold wintery air!  Various winter flowering clematis are covered in bells, some flushed with burgundy, others creamy white.  When the sun has deigned to come out, these have been a magnet for bees.  In the border the viburnum is sporting rosy clusters of pink blossom which is complemented by the pinky shades of tiny long-tailed tits who are flitting around the fat balls hanging in the nearby cherry.  The viburnum would also smell nice if I donned my gardening boots and fleece and trekked across the muddy grass to give it a sniff. However, the outdoors could not look less enticing right now!

32293206243_3ed1b9c0d2_mPlants generally start growing when the temperature reaches about 5o centigrade, which is why I am surprised to see that my bulbs have definitely grown this week.  The pot of miniature iris reticulata have suddenly burst into flower!  I can also now see just how much the squirrel disturbed them as they are now all on one side of the pot!  There are signs of crocus beneath the hawthorn but they are being shy in the gloom.  Earlier in the week they were open.

33108784985_fe47a4f020_mElsewhere daffodil leaves are forcing their way upwards.  At this point my daffodils always look healthy and robust but, rather annoyingly, when they come to flower, I often discover that the bulbs have been eaten by something and I only get half a ragged trumpet!

Gardening emails are now exhorting us keen gardeners to get ready for Spring and Summer.  It’s time to be pruning and, more importantly, to be sowing.  The thought, however, of standing outside with compost and seed trays in the drizzle does not appeal!  But if I am to have any crops this year, it’s time to think seriously about what they might be and at least to buy some fresh seed packets.  Tomatoes, which will come indoors to germinate, need to be sown by the middle of March at the latest.  At least by then I am hoping that they can sit in their usual place in the study which, due to decorating and new carpet, has been piled high for the past few weeks with the contents of various cupboards and shelves.  Seed potatoes also need to be bought and chitting started – that odd process of leaving them somewhere in the light and cool (but not freezing!) to generate the long purple shoots that eventually help them to produce the crop.  At some point we need to brave it outside the backdoor to a garden centre to gain some inspiration and get all of this underway.

Right now  I feel more like hibernating.  Even Bryggen, the most outdoorsy of our cats, has come skidding back into the house, slipping on a wet patio as he cornered too quickly!  Finna, the heat-seeker, is curled up on top of the hot water tank, echoing what most of us probably feel like doing now!